Deep dive with Ben Harper, group MD at Watergate Bay Hotel, Beach Retreats and Another Place

One triple-branded UK-based hotel firm is on the cusp of proving a lifestyle aparthotel concept while expanding an outdoor activity inspired strand, so THP News caught up with the group MD to get the inside track on developments.

Ben Harper’s brief covers the group’s flagship Watergate Bay Hotel in Cornwall, self-catering line Beach Retreats and Another Place, The Lake – a lifestyle hospitality hotel on the shores of Ullswater in the Lake District.

Aparthotel experience

With a background in creating a lifestyle aparthotel concept for what was then Saco but is now called Edyn, in the form of the Locke brand, Harper was keen to put his experience to good use at the Watergate Bay group. “Moving into a non-urban leisure-based lifestyle hospitality group of companies about five years ago, I felt that vision translated really well to a leisure coastal environment,” he detailed.

“Having a self-catering business within our portfolio, I knew very quickly that it was a direction I wanted to take Beach Retreats.”

First foray

With the lifestyle aparthotel idea incubating five years ago, the company’s first outreach to make it a reality involved a management deal around three years ago in Hayle, Cornwall. The 35-unit site is part of a wholesale harbourside development including residential, retail and food and beverage elements.

However, Harper reported: “Through covid and a number of different reasons the phasing of the masterplan has changed slightly, so our part of it is delayed. But the developer hopes to start building at the end of this year.”

Enter Sands

With Hayle held up, the group then looked elsewhere to get the aparthotel concept off the ground, culminating in the recent purchase of the 72-room Sands Resort, which is just a mile away from Watergate Bay on the Cornish coast. The property will now undergo a multi-million pound transformation into a lifestyle aparthotel site.

According to Harper: “Having had the idea and built a business plan, a framework and an operational platform for the Hayle site, we just got more clear on it and excited by the concept. We had to find a way of doing this but being able to control it and financing it ourselves.

“Then the Sands Resort became available and it was such an obvious development opportunity to transition this ‘bucket and spade’ hotel that’s lost its position in the market into this lifestyle aparthotel concept.”

Concept fundamentals

Harper outlined that Sands has the fundamentals required for the concept, sitting on a 10-acre estate and featuring a large ground floor communal space, a swimming pool and a gym. As well as its existing units being generously configured to enable an apartment transformation, it also has planning permission for a further 25 lodges in the grounds.

The Watergate Bay group will be operating Sands in its current guise until this winter, when the redevelopment will begin ready for the Beach Retreats transition, which is due to complete by the end of 2024.

As to what the renovation will entail, Harper revealed: “The structure is sound, so it doesn’t require any material planning changes. The footprint of the building will remain – it’s a wholesale refurbishment and interior design space planning exercise.”

Synergistic benefits

The proximity of Watergate Bay Hotel will be a boon for the site too, as Harper explained: “It offers space that Watergate doesn’t. Watergate is a very small geography and we have to use everywhere for the benefit of our guests and teams.

“Sands provides us with some real operational efficiencies such as parking and storage. Commercially the sites will be operated by two brands, so there’s no dilution – we have some clear distance between the two from a guest experience and positioning perspective. Plus 72 apartments’-worth of people can come to Watergate and use our restaurants, surf school and fuel our partners’ food and beverage growth. So there are real synergistic benefits to this, which was a key part of the business case.”

The Watergate Bay group hopes to expand the lifestyle aparthotel notion even further in the future, with Harper saying: “I have huge plans for it and the ability to prove the concept on our home turf is really helpful. The strategy will be to develop this as quickly and efficiently as we possibly can. Then we’ll be looking at different routes to scale it.

Watergate update

In the meantime, back at the group’s flagship Watergate Hotel, more redevelopment plans are afoot. Harper divulged: “We’re soon submitting a planning application for a development within Watergate. There’s a site within its geography that we’ve owned for a number of years and we have always intended to develop it.

“The plans include more leisure, more food and beverage and an additional 20 rooms. We hope to be developing that over the next 18-24 months. It’s a really inspiring piece of work to be involved with and we’re really excited to get that going.”

Another Place

The company’s third strand is Another Place, which began around eight years ago. Harper outlined: “The co-founders of Watergate had the vision to translate their upscale lifestyle hospitality ethos into other iconic locations across the UK. Watergate Bay as a brand can’t travel beyond the bay itself so they spun Another Place off to Ullswater.

“It’s been very successful and the experience focuses on the active elements that are available to our guests on the doorstep, like open water swimming, paddle boarding or kayaking. The property also has its own watersports centre, twinned with the normal hospitality you would expect from one of our brands, such as a swim club, which is our take on a spa.”

In the last 12 months, Another Place, The Lake also launched ‘Outside’, which is a collection of shepherds’ huts and treehouses in the grounds.

Second site

Next up for the outdoor activity-inspired brand is a second site, which will be called Another Place, The Garden. This will be a conversion of the 1857-built grade II listed Amport House in the Hampshire countryside, resulting in a 50-room hotel.

However, the timing of the group’s property purchase proved to be less than ideal: “We bought it a couple of weeks before the lockdown in 2020,” said Harper. “It’s been a tricky one from a planning perspective because it sits in the heart of a Hampshire village and we’ve worked very hard to connect and engage with the local community to ensure that we’re listening and helping them understand the nature of our brand.”

With planning permission for the conversion finally imminently due, the group hopes to soon start on the transformation into a high quality lifestyle-led hospitality and food and beverage site. It will feature a separate swim club which will include a curated active experience programme.

Professional partnerships

Harper acknowledges that the UK hotel development market is challenging at the moment, with fluctuating prices and cost inflation, as well as an inability for contractors to commit, but he feels his group is in a good position: “Particularly in our home Cornwall market we’re very well connected and we have a solid base of contractors and professionals who we’ve dealt with for many years. But as we move into new markets we’ll  probably find the challenges of being less connected more stark.”

For instance, Watergate Bay has worked with local Cornwall interiors specialist, Dynar Design, on several occasions. “Our interior designers have really become part of our team and have delivered a sense of continuity, consistency and the operational capability required for projects like ours,” said Harper. “We also like to keep things as local as we can, and that’s borne out of a long-standing ethos.”

The company is also in the process of becoming B Corp accredited for social and environmental performance. “We’re currently being validated, which is a really interesting and game-changing process to go through,” believes Harper. “Part of that philosophy is that we have to be really attuned to sustainability and local communities across all of our activities, and the selection of partners is one of them.”

Brand expansion

Looking ahead, Harper described wanting to take the Another Place brand to other iconic UK locations with the ability for guests to get active in the locality, while he feels the Beach Retreats line will be suitable for secondary and up and coming coastal markets, like Torquay, Brighton or Margate. “There will be more opportunity within those markets from an asset acquisition perspective – perhaps those seaside holiday hotels that might be struggling or have potentially lost some of their market position,” he added.

“In the spirit of creating places that connect with the community, our approach to food and beverage will be to partner, finding entrepreneurial restaurateurs and deli owners within these markets who want to scale their businesses.”

Next phase

With the focus firmly on conversions, rather than having to deal with the speed to market drawbacks of newbuilds, Harper summed up: “We’ve spent the last five years locking into a plan and setting up these opportunities, and we now have a pipeline for all three brands. They’re all born out of this lifestyle brand positioning, which really connects with people at the moment as they look for hospitality experiences beyond a cookie cutter experience they might have been drawn to five or 10 years ago.

“The next three year cycle is about establishing the blueprint and the brand vision, and executing and delivering the plan. I’m shifting my mindset from the planning phase into how we get everything operational. It’s about getting the right organisational structures in place and focusing hard on people to ensure that we’ve got the superstars of the industry to help us deliver on this plan.”